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Electronic Diagnosis of Autism in Children

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Researchers have developed a small electronic device that can now screen children for autism. This small recorder fits into the upper pocket of a shirt and can analyze words the child says during the day. The device has a powerful software program that evaluates all the sound the child makes. The software program recognizes the words, syllables and processes sounds made only by the child being studied. The 12-hour daytime recordings are then analyzed to examine a child's natural speech. Parents return the recorder back to the company after the child has worn it for a day. Back at the company, the researchers analyze the recording for language development progress and degree of autism.

This research done by clinicians at University of Memphis recently analyzed more than three million syllabic sounds gathered from over 1,500 all-day recordings from 232 children ranging in age between 10 months to 4 years. The tests were undertaken in English, but the head of research, Dr. Oller said the technique could be applied to other languages. "It hasn't actually been tried yet, but there's every reason to think it should."

Oller, the head of the study, has extensively studied language learning and evolution, and has recognized how the structure of diverse syllables changes during a child's first four years of life. This knowledge led Oller to develop a device that could analyze speech.

Oller said, "Although clinicians have been saying for many years that they think that autistic kids sound strange when they talk, there's been no practical way to use vocalization as a part of the diagnostic or screening procedure in working with autism."

At present, the diagnosis of autism is based on a range of behaviors and speech impediment including how much a child talks by a certain age, whether they make eye contact and the degree of repetition in vocabulary.

"Autism is a multi-factorial disorder and it has many behavioral dimensions to consider. And vocalization is clearly an important one," said Oller. "But I certainly don't think it should be used exclusively."

Oller has noticed that the speech development process in autistic children does not follow the typical pattern and there are subtle deviations in both pronunciation and vocalization.

While all this may sound fantastic news, it is important to know that Oller and most of his colleagues received consultation fees from the company that makes the device. Moreover, some of the researchers even work for the company (LENA Foundation). Secondly making the diagnosis of autism earlier in life makes no difference in treatment. To date there is nothing specific available for children under the ages of 2-5.

From past history, researchers who have worked with medical industries and receive funding always make everything look glossy. So before you rush out to buy this expensive device, remember the adage, “Buyer Beware.” Medicine is ultimately a business.

The results of the study have just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Add a Comment2 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

It's great for early detection, if your doctor has it and it is accepted as a diagnosing tool for autism. But there are still a lot of doctors out there that won't give an autistic diagnosis to a child under the age of 2.

July 24, 2010 - 7:32am
(reply to Anonymous)

The technique is still very new and remains untested. Because of the great variability in children's language growth under the age of 2, the device is more likely to falsely label children with a diagnosis of autism.

July 26, 2010 - 11:24am
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